History of Mental Wellness Benefits

Until the inevitable future when robots take over all our jobs, employers will need to care about their employees’ health and wellbeing. Businesses have known this for decades, which is why things like the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) were created. EAPs could be considered the original corporate wellness program. But time and technology have evolved what a wellness program looks like and employers are slowly learning (or re-learning) the importance of providing mental wellness benefits.
Mental Wellness
If you like to visit the company-sponsored keg at the end of the workday because you enjoy the benefit of drinking at the office, you would have loved the 1930s. At that time, drinking at lunch or even while working was a common practice. As industry picked up, managers began to notice the toll alcohol was taking on their workers’ productivity and health. Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1935, was soon picked up by corporations and factories as a way to help employees with their drinking problems. These programs were called “Industrial Alcoholism Programs.”1 A shift in focus came in the 1950s when major economic influencers like Consolidated Edison and Standard Oil of New Jersey began covering other behavioral and mental health issues within their programs.
The Benefits
These programs and what they evolved into weren’t just for the good of the employee. The company was benefiting from helping their workers solve behavioral and mental health problems. Mental health wellness benefits are proven to improve productivity and engage workers with the company. Caring for mental health can also prevent workplace violence and accidents.

When employees feel supported in their efforts toward better mental health they will seek out proper mental health treatment and therapy, thus reducing the healthcare costs that result from the physical manifestations of stress on the body. In other words, mentally healthy employees are generally physically healthier as well. This, in turn, reduces absenteeism. Programs aimed at mental wellness can also reduce turnover in your business by combating burnout.2
Physical Wellness
Over time, mental wellness fell by the wayside in favor of a focus on physical fitness. The Johnson & Johnson Live for Life program in the 1970s was the first program to truly focus on physical health by providing assistance with weight control and nutrition. Through the 1980s and 90s, new programs, such as the federally funded Healthy People 2000 program, were formed to encourage employers to provide health resources to employees. This could be through education and awareness, healthy-living programs, or changes to the workplace environment.3

Physical fitness has remained a focus of workplace wellness programs throughout the 21st century, and rightfully so. Obesity rates in American adults have risen from 30.5% in 1999 to 39.6% in 2016.4 Physically unhealthy employees will need frequent absences from work and may suffer other lifestyle conditions such as diabetes, chronic digestion issues, back pain, fatigue, etc. All of this takes a direct toll on employee productivity and your company’s bottom line. As a result, programs supporting mental wellness were put on the backburner.
How it is Today
In today’s corporate world, support for health and wellness goes way beyond the hyper-focused addiction programs of the past. From supporting time off to offering healthier options at the company cafeteria, companies are finding more unique ways to protect both physical and mental health. Different workers need different levels of care, and your industry or the size of your company may dictate some of what you offer. The first thing to note is that the benefits of an employee wellness program should never cause additional stress; this would be counterproductive. Employees need easy and accessible solutions to their physical and mental health problems.

The good news is, there are hundreds of good options for assisting employees with their mental health wellness goals. First, interview or evaluate employees to learn about their mental health concerns and goals. Next, choose a health plan with mental health benefits and be sure to offer a professional Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Assign one HR individual to manage employee mental health concerns so workers have a dedicated ally within the office. Conduct company-wide training or workshops on mental health to increase awareness and understanding.

Focusing on mental health also means changing your corporate culture to reflect the results you want to see. For example, a manager or boss who never takes a vacation or day off is not demonstrating a healthy work/life balance, something critical to mental wellness. Offering travel assistance programs like Taab can show employees that you actively support time off and want them to mentally detach from the stressors of work.

If we define wellness as the healthy functioning of the body and the mind, then it makes sense to include mental health benefits in your wellness program. Focusing on mental health will increase productivity while reducing absenteeism and employee turnover. Look for new ways (like Taab!) to help protect your workers’ mental wellness.